Inside Llewyn Davis: A Serious Man in Greenwich Village

As preparation for the movie, I bought the CD soundtrack a few weeks before. This has proven to be a mistake, for I’d been listening to it so much that when I watched the film, I wasn’t surprised by the music at all. I consider that a loss. It would have been much better that I were mesmerized by that haunting voice of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) for the first time as I watched the movie.

Inside Llewyn Davis copy

Music is a major player in many Coen brothers movies, often used to comedic and acerbic effects. The whole odyssey in O Brothers Where Art Thou (2000) comes to mind readily, or Jefferson Airplane in A Serious Man (2009) where ‘Somebody to Love’ reinvents itself, or even in True Grit‘s (2010) ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ as we see the one-arm Mattie Ross riding into the sunset.

But in Inside Llewyn Davis, music is no laughing matter. Llewyn is the serious man here, a folksinger down on his luck. T. Bone Burnett has crafted an impressive music production. It should be noted too that Marcus Mumford, lead singer of Mumford and Sons and husband of Carey Mulligan, is also involved in the song arrangement and singing, in particular, the part of Llewyn’s duo partner Mike in ‘Fare Thee Well’.

The setting is New York City’s Greenwich Village, 1961. Llewyn is a folk music purist, an idealist. All he wants is a gig to kick off as a solo performer. The backstory is that his singing duo partner had committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. The record he has produced as a soloist isn’t selling. It’s cold in NYC, Llewyn is homeless and coatless. Maybe it’s arrogance coming from being a music purist that makes him callous and abrasive, even to fellow folk singers, or maybe he needs to have that aloof hardness as an armour to sustain the slings and arrows life hurls his way.

O, if only Llewyn’s personality were as charismatic as his voice, he probably would have done better in life. Despite his musical talents, our protagonist, like a Shakespearean tragic hero, is trapped by his own character flaws and tripped by no small amount of fate, he slips slides into the wayside. Sadly, that’s exactly where he lands at the end of the movie.

He has friends and acquaintances, but there’s not much that they can do to help. He has already made the best use of their couches, and some of their wives. The latest to get pregnant is Jean, played against type by the sweet Carey Mulligan, all wrapped up in anger, understandably so, for her friend Llewyn is more concerned about a lost cat than her upcoming abortion. Jean has a very limited vocabulary to express herself except the overused expletive. Not a pleasant role to play I’m sure. Her character could have been written with a bit more depth.

Oscar Issac, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan copy 2

Jean and her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake) are also folk singers but ‘careerists’ according to Llewyn. They would one day concede to life in the suburb, settle down and have kids. ‘Is that so bad?’ Jean asks Llewyn. The answer is obvious. Llewyn is definitely not going down that path.

Talented folk singers converge at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village during the 1960’s. Why some succeed and others don’t, the Coen brothers seem not so much to offer rational explanations than to depict the misfortunes of one. In that dim, brick-walled and smoke-filled Café, we hear some fantastic singing. We hear Jim, Jean and their friend Troy (Stark Sands) perform ‘Five Hundred Miles’, evoking Peter, Paul and Mary. At one point, to an oblivious Llewyn, we see the silhouette of what looks like Bob Dylan and hear his voice singing ‘Farewell’.

Cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel) sets the mood from the opening scene. In that basement Café, we see the place dimly lit with spotlight on Llewyn’s face, as his ‘Hang Me, O Hang Me’ captivates us right away. We follow him later as he steps outside to a pitch-dark alley where he meets his nemesis. Even during the day, we see him walk on wind-swept streets under dull, grey sky. The overall bleakness can be soothed only when Llewyn picks up his guitar and sing. His voice seems to be able to neutralize any outrageous fortune.

Llewyn takes a surreal road trip to Chicago to try his luck with a club owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham, a double for Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman?) He is stuck in the car with the old and sardonic Roland Turner (John Goodman) who wraps up his opinion in one short line: “Folk singer? I thought you said you were a musician.” If the trip seems absurd, it could well be the exact impression the directors intend. We follow one week in the life of Llewyn Davis, a week of failed attempts, gloomy encounters, and bleak prospects. The only light is the voice.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

A Serious Man (2009)

True Grit (2010)

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

14 thoughts on “Inside Llewyn Davis: A Serious Man in Greenwich Village”

  1. As I mentioned in my email, this is a film I’m hoping comes our way (thought I’m not holding my breath on that one). That era of folk music intrigues me. I remember it, yes I do, though by the time I made it to an age where I might appreciate it, I was on to other musical interests for some time. It took awhile to return to the passion and roots of folk music which remains my favorite. I’m glad you mentioned the CD issue, because this is one I was thinking of getting in advance (figuring it will be 2015 before I see the film! Oh, the challenges of low expectations…). But I think I will refrain, based on your advice.

    This is a fascinating time period and I think the Coen’s will handle it well (and did, based on your ripples. Interesting, though — I thought it was probably a black and white film until I saw your color photo. I knew there was an orange cat and I don’t know how I knew that, but I could swear every promo I’d seen for it was b/w. Maybe just gray and gloomy…

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    1. Jeanie,

      You’re absolutely right in pointing out that the film looks like it’s done in b/w. I was going to write about this but forgot. You see, it’s much gloomier than I first expected, and the color scheme (O, and I was doing some research on it about the tone, and I forgot to put it in… it’s cyan to me throughout) sets the mood for the bleakness of the movie. Yes, the music is great, but it’s framed in greyish/green tone, bleak, and sad, albeit with splashes of dark humor. To be honest, not a very pleasant or positive atmosphere. Yes, you’ll love that cat which reminded me of Marmelade Gypsy. That’s a ‘spoiler’ for you. 😉

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  2. Arti – you paint the film as an eternal bummer (which I suppose maybe it is on some level) that you still seem to have liked from an artistic standpoint. I found the film much more pleasing…the cinematography like a warm blanket in the freezing cold…the whole thing ripe with melancholy. I loved the music, the acting, the writing, the directing…every single thing about it. It saw it about ten days ago and I’ve been in a great mood ever since. I dunno…something about melancholy done in such a perfect pitch…nothing could put me more at ease and content – maybe it’s the idea that even if the world hands you a huge load of suck and you let the worst in you get the best of you…there can still be beauty and art and meaning and the world will just keep spinning.

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    1. David,

      Exactly… like the criticism 12 Years A Slave got, we just can’t let bleakness be depicted by shoddy work. You’re right, the overall aesthetics has tremendous artistic value, no matter wether the character gets what he wants or not. I went back and saw it a second time, but still my feelings remain, it is still gloomy, and Llewyn could well be the victim of his own doing, and that it takes more than talents to succeed in this world. For me, I can’t say it’s a warm blanket. But the music is a triumph, and this whole production, art.

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  3. The movie has been getting lots of good buzz and I have a special feeling for the Coen brothers since they are from Minnesota, so I am glad to hear the movie is good! Thanks for the wonderful review 🙂

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    1. Stefanie,

      I can totally understand your sentiment towards the Coen bros. as a Minnesotan. And yes, you must see this one with Bookman. Very curious to know what you two think of it. Do come back and share after. 😉

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  4. I forgot what movie it was – I saw it years ago – but it took place in ’61-’62, and the protagonists were members of a gang, all slicked-back hair and motorcycle jackets…leftovers from the 1950’s. There was a scene where one of the members peered into a dim and smoky club, and there was the unmistakable silhouette of Bob Dylan. I found the scene incredibly moving.

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    1. Aubrey,

      From what you’ve described, that certainly is one movie moment. I can’t recall which movie it is, but yes, such a visual can particularly stand out. I’m sure you’ll be even more impressed by the cinematography of Inside Llewyn Davis.

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  5. I definitely need to see this one. I love the Coen brothers, and anything about NYC I’m going to be interested in. And anything with good music sounds great! Now I’m wondering if it would be worthwhile to pay a babysitter to see it. It looks like my local theater will be getting it soon. Hmmmm….

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  6. For me, of course, this would be a significant trip down memory lane. I met Peter, Paul & Mary in a Des Moines coffee house in 1962. I’ve been to the Gaslight – one of the first recorded Dylan concerts was done there. And yes, I was part of the “folk scene” in the mid-to-late 60s, when people affected precisely the kind of attitude depicted here in the person of Llewyn Davis, and sought the same kind of atmosphere. Everyone had a guitar, and caught existentialism like the measles.

    Despite it all, there’s a good bit of nostalgia for those days among some of us. Would I want to live the life? No. Would I want to be such a “purist” as Davis myself? Not now. Still….

    There’s no question I’ll see this one when it comes around. Those were strange times, and it seems from your review that the times have been captured perfectly.

    It was in 1965 (or ’66, perhaps) that I met Allen Ginsberg and spent an hour talking to him – at a Holiday Inn coffee shop in Cedar Falls, Iowa. That’s the sort of weirdness that this film brings to mind.

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    1. Linda,

      I remember reading one of your posts describing your experience with the folk music scene. You know, you should be in a documentary. Well, maybe someday I’ll make one, and you’ll definitely be a major subject I interview. I’m sure this movie is already showing in a major city near you, Houston e.g. You must drive that one hour trip to watch it. I eagerly wait for your thoughts on it. 😉

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  7. What an intriguing film and a wonderful review by you, Arti. I’m not sure I’d want to see it, as it does sound very, very bleak. But the subject matter is intriguing. I have a brother-in-law who is a huge folk music fan, so I’ll have to tip him the wink about this one.

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    1. litlove,

      As you can see from another commenter (David), not everyone thinks it’s bleak. So, you’ll never know. Just the music is worth the while to sit through and the atmospheric cinematography, not to mention the superb acting. I’m sure you and Mr. Litlove will enjoy it. 😉

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